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Homeland Security

17 November 2005

U.S. Businesses Brace for Possible Pandemic

Threat of global flu outbreaks forces planning, contingencies

By Judy Aita
Washington File United Nations Correspondent

New York -- Major international companies based in the United States are actively preparing for the possibility of a global influenza pandemic, equating the seriousness of the situation with threats of terrorism or natural disaster, top consultants and corporate officials say.

At a daylong session on the global threat of pandemic avian influenza (bird flu) organized by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) November 16, corporate executives, consultants, medical researchers, U.S. government and U.N. officials discussed aspects of the problem, including the role of the business community.

A virulent strain of bird flu that first arose in Asia has resulted in the death of more than 150 million birds and has now appeared in Russia and parts of Eastern Europe. Transmission of the H5N1 virus to humans has resulted in 67 human deaths, according to a November 17 report issued by the World Health Organization. (See related article.)

Health experts fear that the virus could mutate to become easily transmitted from one person to another, setting off a global flu pandemic in humans like that of 1918 when tens of millions died.

AMERICAN FIRMS TAKE POTENTIAL PANDEMIC “VERY SERIOUSLY”

Large corporations are taking the possibility of an influenza pandemic "very seriously; they want to do a good job" in responding should the flu become widespread, said Richard Foster, managing partner of Foster Health Partners.  Their big issues, he said at the CFR session, are their employees, the families of their employees, and the capability of local health care systems to handle an epidemic.

Gerald Komisar, senior vice president of global risk assessment at American International Group (AIG), said that the insurance giant has been monitoring the situation for some time. Corporate executives "recognize that we have an obligation, [a] responsibility to our employees, to our clients, and, in fact, to the well-being of the global economy."

Komisar said AIG is making a big investment in what executives consider a long-term matter of concern.

"If you have a strong foundation … a crisis plan, a business continuity plan, whatever name you put on it, you have the foundation in place to adapt it to whatever crisis comes down the road in the future," he said. "It could be a major terrorism event, it could be another kind of infectious disease, a natural catastrophe."

William Kanin, vice president of Guardsmark, said, that his company views bird flu "as a security threat, just as a criminal or terrorist attack or earthquake.”

Guardsmark, a provider of security services, has clearly identified its focus in the face of this potential crisis, Kanin said. “Our major concern is on the protection of our employees and the protection of clients' employees."

"Our worst fear is that we would put an infected person on [duty in] one of the facilities of our clients," Kanin said.

CONTINGENCY PLANS

Companies have drawn on the lessons learned from the 2003 SARS (servere acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in Asia, but have recognized that pandemic influenza could be worse, and SARS plans will not be adequate.  Specially organized management and medical teams already are monitoring the situation worldwide, and risk assessment teams are drawing up and refining contingency plans not only for overseas operations, but also for the United States, the experts said.

Some of the planning involves employees and operations that might be at the site of an outbreak, while other sections of the plans deal with possible disruption of food, fuel and medical supplies in areas not affected by the disease.

Komisar said that the AIG plan has three objectives: protecting its 92,000 employees in 130 countries and jurisdictions around the world; ensuring uninterrupted service to its clients; and examining its own business exposure under scenarios ranging from a limited outbreak to a worst-case pandemic.

Companies are developing or already have created programs to teach employees proper health standards for cleanliness, such things as handling doorknobs, food preparation and personal hygiene. There are plans for hotlines and e-mails to keep people informed in case of an outbreak.  All have travel-restriction plans in place.

One company has compiled a list of bird flu symptoms, Foster of Foster Health Partners said. This company has been monitoring all employees returning from Asia for 10 days to get the earliest warning of any possible infection.

For additional information on the disease and efforts to combat it, see Bird Flu (Avian Influenza).

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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